You Say You Want a Devo-lution?
Even when they first became a band, Devo knew a lot of things man wasn't exactly supposed to know. They knew that progress wasn't a given and that societies or even species can evolve toward the primitive instead of the sophisticated. They knew, as did sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, that revelatory things could be discovered in a culture's trash. And they knew—as founding member and bassist/synthesizer player Gerald Casale explained in a vintage bio—that Devo was an idea they'd "never live down."
For nearly 40 years, Devo have soaked so deeply into the national psyche that you can buy a Devo Halloween costume the same way you'd buy an "Abe Lincoln" or "Groucho Marx" costume—and Casale explains why as a budding young spud, he was sure he'd always be Devo.
"Whenever you question the basic assumptions that everyone holds dear . . . you realize that it's never gonna go away," he says. "De-evolution is real, everybody knows it, and maybe that's a good thing. It's like . . . we can't even make it to the moon the way we did in 1969. We're running out of money to make heinous wars. It could be a good thing that man becomes so mired and entropically trapped in the quicksand that he can't go out and do anything."
He has been saying that for decades, of course. But never has the planet been so drowning in the illogical backwardness that inspired Casale—if inspired is the right word—to start the musical experiment/video/performance art project that would go from Sextet Devo to the De-evolutionary Band to the De-Evolution Army to simply Devo. ("Just easier to say," front man Mark Mothersbaugh explained to one interviewer.)
When Devo started in post-Kent State-shooting Ohio, the future Devos found their evidence in fringe religious tracts and obscure nature documentaries. Now, says Casale, the bizarre reactionary (and explicitly anti-evolutionary) sentiment of Devo artifacts such as the 1924 B.H. Shadduck tract "Jocko-Homo Heavenbound" is presented as mainstream truth. "Like on FOX News," he adds.
No coincidence that one of his favorite similes is Devo as "house band on the Titanic," which he likes to augment by saying that if you'd shown the average American of 1976 what the country would be like in 2011, it would have been laughed it off as cheap "what-if?" sci-fi. And as the Devo oath directs, we must all repeat. How does Casale feel about the stupidity around him now?
"I don't think there's much nuance," he says. "We are now a nation of morons."
Maybe now is a good time to apologize to everyone who wandered into this article just because they remember "Whip It." Perhaps they've never seen Devo's The Truth About De-Evolution, the 1976 short film starring the band, Mothersbaugh's dad as "General Boy," a corrosive synthesizer soundtrack and the dissolving ruins of an American rust-belt city. Perhaps they've never heard of Booji Boy's book My Struggle, an ultra-rare self-released text written by Mothersbaugh's infantilized alter-ego—he of the grotesque baby mask—that is pretty much the secret Devo bible, revealing the agenda and methods of the band in terrifying totality.
Perhaps someone should mention that their most recent album, Something for Everybody—as much an experiment in Internet-era marketing discourse as pop music—is their most potent since 1982's Oh No! It's Devo. And perhaps someone should also mention that old interview with Casale, in which he says, "We do give straight answers, but nobody believes them."
Now, Casale says, "Look at the kind of idea we put out. Built into it is the recognition of what was about to happen. Now, it's like somebody just came in and kicked down the house of cards completely. It's wide-open chaos, and it opens it up to every charlatan like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party—that's what you're seeing! You're seeing the empowerment of people whose minds are full of holes. It's time to just point and laugh! The horror is so grave it's all one can do."
This article appeared in print as "¡Viva la Devo-lution! Predicting the end was never quite so fun."
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